Musing Ourselves to Death: Helmut Starcke at the Iziko Old Town House
by Lloyd Pollak
The 'Muse of History' is an occasionally enthralling exercise in which Helmut Starcke intersperses the Michaelis collection with the modern postscripts he has supplied to both these 17th century Dutch paintings, and others in foreign collections. Thereby the artist initiates a telling dialogue between the art and culture of today and that of yesteryear. Starcke's grandly scaled acrylics form a wary post-modern commentary on the covert ideological basis of 17th century Dutch art, exposing its unspoken assumptions and underlying its propagandist persuasions and arrant Eurocentricity.
The Old Town House becomes a court in which history passes sentence on the past. A mass of black victims of the Dutch East India Company's iniquities throng the gallery, and confront us head-on in Fathers, Brothers, Husbands and Sons, the harrowing and accusatory pivot of the show. Derived from a news photograph portraying volunteers for the Biafran army in Nigeria in 1968, the painting's anti-decorative stance and freedom from Dutch precedent, make it a jarring stylistic anomaly that stands out like a sore thumb.
In the context of Starcke's adjacent lithograph, which deals with the casualties of the slave trade, we also understand the work as an image of captive slaves - or their descendants - demanding retribution. The victims of Biafra (another catastrophic legacy of colonialism) are conflated with those of the slave trade to present a wrathful collectivity: Africa's indigenous peoples smarting with the wrongs of centuries.
Fathers, Brothers, Husbands and Sons is exceptional inasmuch as Starcke's other paintings are 17th century pastiches in which the meaning of the original is subverted and the triumphalist slant eliminated. This is a dangerous game for, if the present can cast judgement on the past, the past too can cast judgement on the present, and the unrivalled quality of the 17th century paintings underlines the inadequacies of Starcke's style and content.
The nub of the problem is that when you rework exemplars by great Dutch masters, the logic of the venture presupposes constant comparison between original and variation, and the curator, Haydon Proud's presentation, in which Starcke's paintings are juxtaposed with full-colour reproductions of the originals, insists upon such an approach. Unfortunately comparison reveals Starcke's feet of clay. His paintings rely on make believe. When he removes the allegorical female figure from his version of Vermeer's The Art of Painting, and replaces her with a San tribeswoman suckling a babe, he is painting what Vermeer might have painted. In other words he is creating a conjectural Vermeer, and for such counterfeit to convince, Starcke must credibly imitate the master's style.
The Dutch masters could reproduce the exact appearance of fabrics, hair, flesh or any substance as it reacts to light, shade and reflections, and it is precisely such mimetic skills that make every inch of their paintings bristle with excitement. Virtually no contemporary artists possesses such gifts, and certainly Starcke's handling of light falls far short of his forbears. Compared with Vermeer, who admittedly set impossibly high standards, Starcke's foreshortening appears faulty: his hands and hair, unconvincing: his drapery lifeless, and his sense of tone and texture deficient.
All his compositions abound in dead areas, like the interior of the man's hat to the bottom left of Dreams and Nightmares of M. de la Q. #2 where the artist takes a shortcut, and paints in a broad manner unthinkable in the 17th century Dutch paintings he seeks to replicate.
Whether the major Dutch artists were painting interiors, bouquets or portraits, they provided a fuller account of their subject matter than any previous artists, and there was a heroic aspect to their visual conquests. Starcke's variations never provide such a sense of discovery. Using the prism provided by 17th century art, Starcke provides a critical view of the activities of the Dutch East India Company and the affluent burgher class it represented.
Doctrinaire revisionism whereby artists review the human rights record of the colonial and pre-colonial period, has become so routine in South Africa, that it is almost our official agenda. Because such a programme tacitly endorses the status quo ('Look how much better we are than they', say the paintings) and avoids contemporary allusions, it is as uncontroversial, safe and predictable as Soviet Socialist Realism.
In In the Beginning, a charred vase of flowers is juxtaposed with the date of Jan van Riebeeck's landing at the Cape. The implication is that nothing but waste and destruction resulted from this event. If the artist's approach often tends to such simplistic judgements, it also degenerates into prissy political correctness and schoolmarmy cluck clucking.
Dreams and Nightmares of M. de la Q. #2 deals with the success of the company gardens, and portrays Maria de la Quellerie receiving sycophantic praise for having produced a magnificent cabbage. The text-board describes how Maria de la Quellerie is being féted as the 'lady of the estate' and given all credit for the garden and its produce. 'But the credit as we know, lay elsewhere' reads the text-board. 'This is a situation that endures today, be it in our suburbs of Jonkershoek, Bishopscourt or Sandton.' Sadly this tone of sanctimonious self-righteousness characterises much of the exhibition.
However when Starcke abandons sententious moralising, the results are magic. Haydon Proud speaks of Starcke's poetic speculations, and his finest paintings, the Dreams and Nightmares of Maria de la Quellerie #1, #3 and #4 eschew politics, and deploy potent visual symbols to convey Maria's homesickness, fear and trepidation. #3, a stirring heroic painting of a ship burning at sea by night confronts us with Maria's worst terrors. This haunting and obsessive image tells us more about the danger of 17th century seafaring and the vulnerability of vessels and crew than tomes of historical studies.
#1 is a lush fantasy in which the Cape coast emerges beneath an explosive baroque cascade of flowers and fruit, a motif in itself expressive of Dutch nationalism, plenty and elegance. Not a single bloom is indigenous to the peninsula. All are costly botanical specimens which served as epitomés of status and wealth in Holland. These highly domesticated blossoms carry overtones of the convivial rituals of patrician social life. They are emblematic of civilisation rather than nature, and thus they express Maria's longing for the distant gentilities of Holland, and her recoil from the unknown, untamed continent she glimpses from the sea. The flowers' symbolical role as Memento Mori intensifies the urgency of Maria's imagined feelings.
The clash of civilisation and 'savagery', as Maria would have seen it, emerges in Starke's reworking of Vermeer's Music Lesson where he replaces teacher and pupil with levitating African totems, creating a sinister interior in which the Dutch faith in divine reason, logic, empirical observation and cause and effect, a faith implicit in the scientific articulation of the picture space and gradations of light, appears undermined by an alien belief system governed by magic and the supernatural.
When Starcke grapples with emotion and intuits the primal European response to Africa, he attains an iconic power and intensity, but when he reverts to pedantic revisionism, the work fizzles out into the pat and mechanical.
Lloyd Pollak is a Cape Town based critic
Opened: November 17
Closes: April 3